New Labour has, for all the hubris, rarely been comfortable with power. Shortly after Tony Blair's landslide victory in 1997, senior aides were warning of the threat posed by William Hague. Each term of office became an exercise in political prolongation, rather than a genuine radicalism that inevitably brings risks. Now, for the first time, the threat of a Conservative revival is real. Opinion polls are too consistent to be dismissed. David Cameron is avoiding many of the elementary errors of his three failed predecessors.
As the political season kicks off, Labour's mood appears particularly bleak. The talk among MPs no longer revolves around the Blair-Brown leadership tussle, but around an assumption of defeat at the next general election. And then? Civil war along the lines of the early 1980s, culminating in another long period in the wilderness and Britain plunged into another Thatcherite era of recession, inequality and social strife.
The one saving grace for Labour is that none of this need come to pass. Events are still, mostly, in the government's hands. The economy remains largely strong. The Tory alternative is arousing voter curiosity but not necessarily enthusiasm. So a swift and peaceable transfer of power from Blair to Gordon Brown, followed by an inspiring year or two of government, could yet salvage victory. The events of the past 12 months - of a Prime Minister digging in and of a Chancellor hiding and then appeasing the tabloids when under pressure - do not, however, inspire optimism.
So what would be the consequences for Labour and the country if the Conservatives returned to Downing Street in 2009? Forecasting is a mug's game, particularly when politicians are advised, as Blair was in the mid-1990s and as Cameron is now, to avoid specifics for as long as possible. Still, some pointers can be offered.
The first 100 days would see a number of flourishes, some pointing to traditional Tory voters, others to a younger, greener constituency that remembers neither Margaret Thatcher nor John Major. While next year's comprehensive spending review will settle the tax-spend equation until 2010-11, early Tory Budget decisions and legislation are likely to focus on inheritance tax, stamp duty and other "middle-class" taxes.
A public spending squeeze would be under way by that point, courtesy of Brown, but Cameron's latest statement of aims and values, "Built to Last", is clear in pointing to the voluntary sector and social enterprise to take a good deal more jurisdiction, and therefore surely revenue, away from central public services. Welfare initiatives such as Sure Start would be pared down and would, one assumes, eventually wither away, replaced, as already pledged, by a commitment to corporate involvement in childcare and other facilities.
As for the tone, it seems unlikely that Britain would see a return to the social proscription attempted in the 1980s. While the language of immigration would not emulate the Michael Howard of the 1995 election, the Tories would be given carte blanche by the tabloids to use the "security" agenda for a further erosion of civil rights.
The central question is: have Cameron and his allies really shed their right-wing backgrounds, or is this the perfect case of wolves in sheep's clothing? They probably don't yet know the answer themselves.
They will follow the votes, but once in a while, in their invocations of Jeb Bush's compassionate conservatism and George W Bush's neoconservatism, important clues are offered. A planned replacement of the Human Rights Act with a bill of rights and the continued visceral opposition to the EU and even Christian democracy are important marks in the road.
Then, strangely, there is constitutional reform, an area that should gladden the heart of the modernising liberal. This is where serious damage can be caused. The Tory clamour of "English laws for English votes" presages a final heave to remove Labour's advantage at Westminster, courtesy of the preponderance of Scottish and Welsh MPs. A Labour government with a working majority would then be truly banished for a generation, and, as recent history shows, once consolidated in power, Conservative governments really do make a difference.Resist the corporate junkiesTo their obvious delight, Roger Annies advised his customers of a service provided by his company. As a result, he lightened his own job load considerably and made a major contribution to the protection of the environment. Marvellous! You probably think that he will have been appropriately rewarded by his bosses for his outstanding work in increasing customer satisfaction or, at the very least, awarded a certificate or tin badge designating him employee of the year.
Well, not exactly. Annies works for the Royal Mail, which delivers more than 60,000 tons of unsolicited mail each year, around 617 letters per person. This avalanche of junk, with its perplexing offers of combined broadband and pet insurance deals and its inducements to a heavily indebted nation to borrow yet more, is worth billions to the Royal Mail.
Thus its concern when the public-spirited Annies told householders on his walk how to reduce this waste-paper burden, by applying for the Royal Mail's own unsolicited-mail opt-out service. When a lot of residents applied, Annies was suspended on full pay, pending inquiries. We feel sure the Royal Mail will already have regretted its action, if only because the subsequent publicity given to this little-known service guarantees that more householders will apply for the opt-out. Dear reader, you may be one. Call Royal Mail Door-to-Door Opt-Out on 08457 740740 or go to www.royalmail.com.